Pakistan and horn of Africa: Starting a new partnership
The Horn of Africa occupies an important strategic position on the map of the world. It looks over the Bab
Al-Mandab strait which is a major world transportation hub connecting the waters of the Red Sea with that of the Indian Ocean. Maritime trade across Asia, Africa and Europe depends upon the smooth functioning of the Bab al-Mandab strait.
As a geographical unit, it includes Muslim countries like Sudan, Somalia, the breakaway region of Somaliland, Eritrea and Djibouti. Within the center of all these Muslim states lies the historical Christian Kingdom (now Republic) of Ethiopia which also has a sizeable population of Muslims. Traditionally, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan have remained the dominant political actors within the Horn but over the years, they have been gradually weakened and fragmented owing to wars and internal rebellions.
After independence, Pakistan was one of the leading supporters of independence movements spanning across North and East Africa specifically within Sudan, Libya and Somalia. Pakistani diplomatic corps under Sir Zafarullah Khan, its first foreign minister, resolutely advocated for these freedom struggles.
In the case of Somalia, support from the Pakistani state was compounded by the expat community of Pakistani traders who contributed vehemently toward the freedom movement. Bilateral ties between the two states prospered and as the civil strife within Somalia intensified, Pakistani troops deployed as a United Nations Peacekeeping Force played a critical role in re-establishing law and order in the country. Meanwhile, Pakistan has also been host country for thousands of Somali students and at present, twenty five members of Somali parliament are graduates of Pakistani universities. Pakistan’s decision to provide Somalia with a grant of $10 million last year for developing a national identification system further amplified goodwill within the Horn nation toward Pakistan. Its exports to Somalia currently stand at $57 million.
A pivot toward the Horn of Africa will enhance Pakistan’s political clout alongside broadening the country’s export base.
Similar has been the course of Pakistan’s ties with Sudan. Pakistan has provided assistance to Sudan in the fields of education and health by delegating scholarships for students training for medical professionals in Pakistani institutions. Pakistani troops have also been deployed within Sudan as part of a UN Peacekeeping Mission in addition to providing healthcare facilities to people in far flung areas by holding field clinics. Sudan in turn has helped Pakistan in its hour of need during the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods. Both countries have formed a joint ministerial commission in addition to establishing Pakistan–Sudan People's Friendship Association to promote bilateral ties.
Pakistan’s ties with Ethiopia remain under-developed and other than leadership meetings at international fora there has not been any significant political engagement on the ground. The bilateral trade remains $90 million, which is an abysmal number considering Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.
The geopolitical significance of the region is clearly on display as multiple international and regional actors are swashbuckling aid and investments. China’s One Belt One Road Project has anchored itself in Djibouti which also boasts a naval base. From a regional perspective, the UAE and Turkey are looking into geo-strategically important ports on the Horn’s coastline while simultaneously building military bases in their zones of influence to develop security patronage networks in addition to political ones.
Pakistan enjoys excellent ties with Horn States as well as with all external actors active within the Horn. Therefore, its attempts at increasing political and economic engagement within the Horn will raise no eyebrows.
On one hand, Pakistan can adopt the Turkish model by trying to shore up goodwill through humanitarian and cultural projects while also enhancing bilateral trade ties and increasing its market share in the Horn economy. On the other hand, it can forge partnerships with these international and regional actors in executing their projects. Any Pakistani attempts at securing a military or naval installation within the Horn won’t arouse suspicions within any of the above mentioned political players either, since nearly all of them remain Pakistan’s strategic partners and understand that Pakistan’s security doctrine remains India-centric.
It is clear that a pivot toward the Horn of Africa will enhance Pakistan’s political clout alongside broadening the country’s export base. By projecting itself as an active regional player within the Indian Ocean, and considering the changing trajectory of Horn politics, Islamabad is now faced with new opportunities in political, economic and strategic realms.